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3.8 out of 5 stars
The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle Edition
Typically, when I read a book, especially one that I plan to review, I will highlight passages throughout that I feel are important to the themes or that showcase the author's talent. In Kathleen Alcott's slim debut, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, I was tempted to highlight the entire text; and I don't necessarily mean that as a good thing. Believe me, I am not a plain prose advocate, I enjoy a poetical garnish or a clever literary device as much as the next man, but Ms. Alcott has a tendency to showcase her precious style in nearly every sentence. Read a paragraph at a time, it is palatable, often delectable, but sustained over the length of the novel, it's just too rich.

The story, narrated by Ida, the hypotenuse of a doomed love triangle, recounts the lifelong relationship between two west coast families entangled by apparently nothing more than their proximity to each other; of both habitation and loss. You see, one family has recently lost their matriarch, the other their patriarch, hence their two-way parasitic relationship. Ida, known as I, and Jackson, the prime subjects of the alphabetical caveat in the title, meet and immediately fall in love. That they happen to be toddlers when this occurs is the catalyst of their excruciating bond. James, Jackson's little brother, completes the triad, but regrettably only in a supporting role. James too often plays the patsy; he's the upright leg of the right triangle, the one to lean on, and indeed the consolation prize. Is it any wonder that James is also the most damaged of the three, preferring the blur of amphetamines to the focus of reality?

Needing a lever of sorts, Ms. Alcott employs sleep disorder to unearth the deeply wedged psychic pain of her characters. At first it's sleep talking, telepathic communication between the somnolent brothers, that causes Ida to spotlight a little misguided if righteous suspicion on a questionable neighbor. Later, Jackson transitions to sleep walking, not your run-of-the-mill book-stacking, cookie-eating nobody-gets-hurt variety somnambulism, Jackson's forays into the night are outright violent. Some manifest in physical brutality some spill out in ink as beautifully grotesque drawings; a talent he cannot reproduce while awake. This behavior peaks during his and Ida's cohabitation in their early twenties, when Jackson's nocturnal battering can still be forgiven. But it's the artistic tangent his unconscious mind follows that in a way frees I and J from each other.

Though flawed and perhaps a bit trite, this first effort from Katherine Alcott is promising. She, yet more than capable of writing a good sentence, would do well to attenuate her style. It's evident to her readers that she is a talented writer, no need to glut the page with proof. I look forward to her future work, perhaps with more emphasis on plot, less predictable behavior; more substance less flourish.
~Book Jones - 3 Stars
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon September 11, 2012
Format: Paperback
Jackson and James are brothers. Jackson is only a year older but he seems determined to be middle-aged well before he enters his teens. A freakishly obsessive kid, Jackson memorizes all the bones in the human body "in order to understand and own how they carried him." Ida is Jackson's inseparable friend from infancy and his lover from adolescence. Jackson and James virtually become part of Ida's family; Ida's father treats them as if they were his own children. As they get older, Jackson starts having nightmares that lead to nocturnal violence; sometimes his somnambulism produces art, other times mayhem. Meanwhile James becomes a mentally ill, suicidal drug addict.

Ida and Jackson are no longer together when the novel begins. Their paths depart about halfway through Ida's recollection of her life. As she tells her story, seemingly random incidents loom large in Ida's young life: her exploration of Jackson's body when she is seven and he is eight; Ida's shameful response to the kidnapping of a neighborhood child; the meanness Ida directs to a preacher's daughter who wants to befriend her. During too much of this short novel, as Ida reflects upon her life, I found myself asking "Why is she telling me this?" Kathleen Alcott provides no clear answer. On other occasions, Ida recalls seminal occurrences from her adolescence that are just too contrived to resonate as formative events in a young life.

None of the events in this short novel are eventful; none of the drama is dramatic. The motivation for Jackson's decision to leave Ida is ludicrous. The characters are tedious, as are Ida's mutating relationships with Jackson and James and her father and an art gallery owner named Paul. Ida's lifelong obsession with Jackson is inexplicable, particularly given that she spurned him before he spurned her. Ida writes: "Since childhood I've spent my heart and words and a catalog of tiny, insignificant moments trying to merge with a bloodstream not mine." I wanted to yell, "Get over yourself!"

Ida's actions and reactions are too often unexplained. I don't need authors to spell things out for me but I do like things to make sense. Ida's thoughts and deeds rarely do. When a character is as pathetic as Ida, I want to know how she came to be that way, but Alcott offers no insight into Ida's psyche. At bottom, I didn't believe the characters were real and I didn't believe the story that Ida narrates.

Alcott's writing is strong but it often amounts to flash without substance. She strives for (and sometimes achieves) an eloquence that overshadows the story she's trying to tell. At other times (as in the title), she's just pretentious. Clever phrasing and surprising word choices do not a novel make. How does a reader evaluate a novel that has nothing to say when the nothing is said beautifully? If I could rate them separately, I would give 4 1/2 stars to the prose and 1 1/2 stars to the content. My 3 star rating represents a compromise between the two.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2012
Format: Paperback
The phrase "proximal alphabets" refers to the names of three odd people whose bonds form the focus of this unique, darkly rich debut. Ida, Jackson and James are a thick-as-thieves trio who remain so throughout their early childhoods and adolescence, well into the majority of their adult lives. The destructive power of their love begins to take on a life of its own, however, becoming evident in their earliest years and morphing into a thing that becomes ever more haunting and malicious, a force that quite literally tears them apart from the inside.

This tale centers primarily on the intimate relationships of Ida as a child and a woman, beginning with a misguided, irrational girl who stumbles throughout her early years rather violently and erratically, after witnessing the death of her mother and living with the despondence of a lonely father. Ida's earliest experiences jump between her many tortuous and insensitive thoughts and acts, leading to some predictable consequences, all of which reveal her deepest inner need to escape life itself.

She invites suffering in all its forms and seems content to fill herself with desperate obsessions. The greatest of these is her lifelong obsession for a boy with whom she lived as a sibling but is not related to by blood; no person on Earth knows her better than Jackson, who is quite unfortunately mutually obsessed with her, and their path together becomes a nightmare.

Yet even while the pair shares some critical dysfunctions that stem from deep within, the two do operate on the same plane, which is why it lasts so long. Being perfectly willing to lie to themselves and one another, they remain remarkably unaware of the degree to which they've sunk, and all the damage they've done to their loved ones.

As children, the two were inseparable, crazy in love from the beginning. They felt an almost miserable need to satiate their electric bond. With a fury, the relationship propelled itself forward, and interestingly, that point of critical mass seemed to come with high hormones and early adolescence. The sexual explorations of Ida and Jackson begin startlingly young and progress precociously into a fierce, vaguely glorious, troublingly violent need. The effect of senseless, repeated exhibitionism on young James never enters their minds. These exposures, living and watching the two of them fill their addictive needs, leads to serious emotional harm in James, and to Jackson taking on some odd personality traits.

But it can be safely said that Ida and Jackson do love one another, at least in some ways. Undeniably, they have always felt as one, as if they share a common soul. As Ida skips forward aimlessly through the years, willingly and freely forgiving her lovers' constant indiscretions, psychological instabilities and directionless life, somehow she knows he's full of as much pain as she is, and she does expect to be forgiven in turn for tolerating what he does.

Ida knows her pursuits are addictive --- endlessly so. But the cardinal rule of keeping secrets holds up the lie. One day, the two find they've lied to themselves for so long it doesn't even frighten Ida anymore when Jackson begins wandering into ever-more-frequently violent states of somnambulistic crimes, verging on the demonic. The day after, he always seems vaguely aware of what he's been up to, though he denies any firm knowledge. But his rage runs deep and becomes more and more disturbing to witness, even in his waking states. At some point, Ida realizes it is only questionably subconscious behavior on his part, as at times, Jackson seems to know the score quite well.

THE DANGERS OF PROXIMAL ALPHABETS is quite an intriguing debut about a unique subject. The flowing prose and artistic appeal of the writing are impressive, and despite the complex, extraordinarily dark nature of the material, the book takes some very interesting turns and entertains. It is poetically written and easily readable, a credit to a talented writer. The content is certainly visceral, gritty and blunt, but there are also deep insights and many interesting questions raised. This book on the unbreakable nature of destructive forms of love will surprise and captivate many readers, particularly those who enjoy dark fiction and gritty modern literature.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith
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on February 19, 2013
Format: Paperback
While well written enough to sustain me over its short length, I never found myself identifying with the novel's characters' goings on at any time. Rather, every one one of the characters, main and auxiliary, came across as more amalgam of quirky characteristics than any real person I would ever encounter. And I think its about time that authors realized that dreams really have import only to their dreamers--a book based so heavily on sleep activities is more than likely to put the reader to sleep as well.
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on December 29, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I was mired in this and could hardly step away from it. Alcott's prose is intoxicating, dizzying; her subjects are tough, hard to love, and even more difficult to look away from. At times it is sentimental and almost cheap, namely the narrator's descent into self loathing from her own stupid decisions. But the background and the premise are enough to make up for any flaws in this excellent debut.
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on August 28, 2013
Format: Paperback
I read this book almost in one sitting as it just kept me so interested. I would describe it more of a short story than a novel.

Definitely worth a read and I have only dropped one star because I felt it should have been developed more into a longer novel so was left a bit frustrated at the end, the way I normally do with proper short stories.
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on February 4, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Alcott weaves a tale of life and love with raw beautiful humanness that leaves haunting memories. She has a rare gift of story telling that drew me to the characters. I couldn't put it down. I eagerly anticipate Alcott next novel. Bravo
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on April 24, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
I liked the characters, but there was something missing for me. I did finish it, but the story really didn't go anywhere and the character development did not go as deep as I would have liked.
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on April 11, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
Kathleen Alcott is a very intelligent writer. She has a crisp tone and intersperses vivid descriptions of towns, cities and nature with her plot. Her characters are varied, well-developed, three-dimensional and humane. She is able to jump backwards and foward in time without losing the thread of her storyline or the mood of the book, using these jumps to help give her characters more development. At first I was not sure I was going to enjoy the plot given the sadness that surrounds a number of the characters. However, the characters were so likeable, even with (and probably in part because of) their weaknesses that I stayed with it. By the end, there is hope as the young protaganists find their own ways to deal with life and find support in each other. .
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on December 5, 2012
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
The writing is quite good but the story not so much.

It's about a girl and two brothers who become a kind of family. From the time they're infants, Ida and Jackson are fascinated with each other. This continues even when James comes along. As they grow up, Ida loses her mother and gravitates to the brothers' home where she spends most nights. When she and Jackson get older, the inevitable happens and James is left to listen to them having sex. The story goes on until they grow up, but Ida's fixation on Jackson becomes boring after a while, even with the wonderful prose. And his obviously mental illness doesn't help.

Once finished, there's a feeling that I read a lot of pages to get nowhere. But the writing itself kept me turning pages. I'm sure this writer will make a name for herself.
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